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'Devil Wears Prada' Puts Heat on Boss-Women

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

"The Devil Wears Prada" may demonize a female boss for dramatic effect, but studies point to young women's disaffection with female superiors. Joie Jager-Hyman ties the hostilities to a workplace that often remains unfriendly to women.

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"The Devil Wears Prada" may demonize a female boss for dramatic effect, but studies point to young women's disaffection with female superiors. Joie Jager-Hyman ties the hostilities to a workplace that often remains unfriendly to women.
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Joie Jager-Hyman

(WOMENSENEWS)--"The Devil Wears Prada," the movie based on the dishy bestseller by Lauren Weisberger, former assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, has been pulling crowds into air-conditioned theaters this summer and making us all wonder: What makes women so bad at bossing?

The story chronicles the hell experienced by a naive editorial assistant, Andrea Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, after she accepts a position at a glamorous fashion rag. Miranda Priestly, her fictional boss-from-hell played by an imperious Meryl Streep, makes ridiculous demands. She orders Andrea to deliver a virtually unattainable copy of the latest Harry Potter or to find a plane to fly Miranda out of Miami in a hurricane. Andrea is forced to do Miranda's bidding while dodging continuous insults and mean-spirited degradation.

Though the portrayal of an older woman has been uncharitably exaggerated for dramatic effect, "The Devil Wears Prada" touches on a real intergenerational conflict among women in today's work force. Instead of following the male example and creating something similar to the Good Ol' Boys Network, research suggests that younger women often clash with their more experienced female colleagues. The majority of the 800 women who responded to a recent Lifetime Women's Pulse Poll said that they actually prefer to work for men.

In an age in which women continue to earn 23 cents on the dollar less than men in the same position, it is time the Mirandas and the Andreas started working together to improve a corporate environment that has failed to truly embrace them.


First to Have It All

Our Baby Boomer bosses were the first ones to try to have it all: career, children and couture.

They entered the work force and rose to the top in unprecedented numbers, uncompromising and unrelenting in their ambition. In the past 25 years, the percentage of women in the U.S. work force swelled from 43 to 59 percent.

As a society, however, we failed to give women a world and a workplace in which they could thrive. Men never really took equal responsibility for parenting, companies never fully adapted to the rights and rituals of pregnancy and motherhood, and U.S. women haven't enjoyed the free and subsidized child care programs that countries like Sweden offer their citizens.

It's no wonder that some baby-boomer working women, like Miranda, grew horns along the way. They needed them to ram the obstacles that blocked the corporate ladder.

Unfortunately, instead of working with the Mirandas to reform the system that created the devil, too many Andreas are dismissing the women who came before.

According to a two-month-old study released by Randstand USA, the fourth-largest staffing organization in the world, only 23 percent of female employees believe that their older coworkers, both male and female, energize them and bring new ideas to the table. Among those surveyed, 77 percent said that younger workers do not seek advice and guidance from their employers over 50; and 70 percent felt that their company does not value older workers.

Studies also show that women as a group are becoming less ambitious over time, and the preference to under-achieve is not restricted to under-achievers.


Fewer Women Want Responsibility

Intergenerational research conducted by the American Business Collaboration found that only 36 percent of college-educated women surveyed wanted to move into jobs with more responsibility, compared with 57 percent in 1992.

Meanwhile, many women who can afford to work part-time--or leave the work force altogether--choose to do so. A survey conducted by the Yale Office of Institutional Research in 2005 found that just over half of female graduates in their early 40s considered their careers to be their primary activity compared with 90 percent of their male peers. A similar survey conducted by the Harvard Business School in 2001 found that two-thirds of female graduates in their 30s and 40s either worked part-time or did not work at all.

Why are so many women cutting back on or opting out of paid employment? I suspect the lack of widespread, affordable and high-quality child care could play a major role in their decision. Last September, roughly 60 percent of the 138 female Yale undergraduates who responded to a poll conducted by the New York Times said that they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely after having children.

This is not to say that raising a family is not hard work or real work. The pressures and distractions of contemporary society make good parenting harder and more necessary than ever before.

However, having mommies stay home is not the only way to make our families work.


Setting a More Realistic Model

America needs mommies to run companies, design products and influence politics. For one thing, our economy suffers when a significant percentage of our most educated workers opt out of a work force that they find inhospitable. For another, it's good for children to see their mothers as breadwinners and people with a wider arena than just the domestic sphere; that helps set a healthy and realistic model for both behavior and perception.

Unfortunately, however, this administration has plans to slash or freeze much of the funding for child care programs that are already underfunded. The president's budget proposes $10 billion less than the Congressional Budget Office estimates is needed to sustain these programs, such as Head Start, a pre-school program for low-income children, and the Child Care Development Block Grant, which is used to help low and middle-income parents pay for day care centers or private child care providers. As a result, the National Women's Law Center predicts that these budget restraints will cause 400,000 children to lose child care services over the next five years. This is on top of the quarter-million children who have already lost child care support since 2000.

Andreas and Mirandas must join forces to change these predictions and support working women who deserve to have it all: a workplace that accommodates breastfeeding and parental leave and a society that pays child care workers for providing an invaluable role in the economy.

Women will be sure that society values their work as much as men only when a high-quality, affordable and widespread system of day care lets them know they don't have to make such a difficult decision between work and family. About this the Andreas and Mirandas can certainly see eye to eye.

Joie Jager-Hyman is a teacher at the Woodhull Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York City aimed at supporting professional young women. She is a doctoral student of administration, planning and social policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is under contract to write a book on the cultural phenomenon of college admissions for Harper Perennial.

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